Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive Pronouns

Reflexive pronouns (myselfyourselfhimself) earned their name because they reflect the action of a verb back onto the verb's subject. For example:

  • Sarah built an investment portfolio for herself.

Unfortunately, reflexive pronouns are making ever more frequent, and inappropriate, appearances as replacements for personal pronouns. For example:

  • My spouse and myself renovated our house. (should be: and I)

Me, Myself, and I
Personal pronouns are grammatically more complex than nouns, partly because their declensions (lists of grammatical forms) have not been compressed to the extent that noun declensions have. Straight grammar instruction having been out of favour in elementary school for some years, few individuals under forty can recite a personal pronoun declension, let alone analyze sentence construction sufficiently well to determine which form in the declension is appropriate for a given situation.

Reflexives seem to be the ideal escape because each reflexive consists of just two forms (the singular and plural). When grammatical instinct fails, and explicit grammatical knowledge is also lacking, the reflexivemyself seems a terrific way to bail out of the "I or me" trap. But this belief is mistaken and only produces an uglier error.

So, How Do Declensions Help Me?
If you attended high school before 1970, and if you pursued an "academic" course of instruction, you probably studied Latin. And, if you studied Latin, you very likely remember the pain of learning the declension for every noun type in the language. (Remember terraterraeterraeterramterristerras; et al?)

If you didn't study Latin, you missed the pain, but you also missed the gain: that is, the chance to internalize the ideas of number and case expressed in the declension. These concepts are directly transferrable to English usage.

Briefly, number is the characteristic that indicates whether you are speaking of one or many things or persons (singular and plural). Case is the characteristic that indicates the grammatical function, in the sentence, of the word for the thing or person. In English, the thing or person can be the subject of the verb action (nominative case), the receiver (object) of the verb action or the object of a preposition (objective case), or the owner of something (possessive case).

Luckily, while every Latin declension expresses six cases and two numbers (twelve forms in total), a typical noun declension in English expresses just two cases and two numbers (four forms in total). The personal pronoun declensions in English each express three cases and two numbers (six forms in total).

To complicate matters further, pronouns also exhibit two other characteristics: person and gender. Person indicates whether the thing or person represented by the pronoun is speaking (first person), is being spoken to (second person), or is being spoken about (third person). Gender applies only to third person singular, where a distinction is made between male (he), female (she), and neuter (it).

To orient you, here is a typical noun declension:

Common Case
Possessive Casehouse'shouses'

and here is the pronoun declension for the first person:

Nominative CaseIwe
Objective Casemeus
Possessive Casemy (adj.),
mine (pron.)
our (adj.),
ours (pron.)

Selecting a Form from the Declension
The average English-speaker rarely has trouble with noun declensions, because the common case simplifies the task of selecting the appropriate noun form.

  • We sold the house quickly. (objective case)
  • The house fetched a good price. (nominative case)
  • The house's selling price exceeded our wildest dreams. (possessive case)

Pronoun declensions, however, require more care.

  • We had extensively renovated the house. (nominative case)
  • It was we who undertook the construction work. (nominative case—predicate nominative)
  • Those renovations benefitted us. (objective case)
  • Our renovations paid off. (possessive case—adjective)
  • Ours was the fastest-selling house on the block. (possessive case—pronoun)

Appropriate Use of the Reflexive Form
Notice that reflexive pronouns do not appear in the personal pronoun declensions. The reflexives are entirely separate, and each consists of just two forms (except where gender becomes concerned in the third person):

Reflexive 1st Personmyselfourselves
Reflexive 2nd Personyourselfyourselves
Reflexive 3rd Personhimself, herself, itselfthemselves

Reflexives exist to serve just two specific grammatical functions: intensification and reflexive action. In both cases, the pronoun must refer back to a noun or pronoun that establishes the identify of the "self".

  • I plumbed the bathroom myself. (intensification, "I didn't hire a plumber or work with my spouse.")
  • It was cruel of you to laugh yourself silly when I dropped the new tub on my toe. (reflexive action, "Your laughter had an effect on you as well as on me.")

Any use of a reflexive pronoun outside of these confines is an error.